This month we chat with Chef Navin Chauhan, head of culinary operations for Asha’s Restaurants in the GCC, about his culinary inspiration and passion for taking North-West Indian cuisine to the next level.
The son of an Indian Air Force father, Navin was exposed to different foods and cultural experiences from a very early age thanks to his father’s cross-country postings.
“My father was a foodie and loved to explore highway roadside eateries. During his career we covered the length and breadth of North India and his passion for exploring food shaped me in the same way,” he says.
Aged 19, he decided to pursue food as a career, and studied at the prestigious Indian Institute of Hotel Management Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition following which he was selected as a management trainee with the Welcome Group Management Institute in Gurgaon.
Says Chef Navin: “Becoming a chef wasn’t actually my first choice, but you can call it destiny. I loved to eat and explore different cuisine even before I knew the meaning of being a chef. If I wasn’t doing this I’d be a fashion designer.”
Innovating the Asha’s experience
A thorough grounding in regional Indian cuisine along with Thai, Spanish English, French, Italian and Japanese, set the tone for a culinary career that has taken him from high profile home turf restaurants like Mumbai’s Kebab & Kurries and world-ranked Peshawar, to the Middle East and Asha’s Restaurants.
Joining the team at Asha’s flagship Kuwait restaurant in 2007 and earning the title of executive chef aged just 31 years old, Chef Navin has been instrumental in overseeing the growth of the brand across the GCC, and has also cooked for world leaders and entertainment superstars including Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto and Bryan Adams.
Instrumental in diversifying Asha’s core menu, Chef Navin is known for his unconventional approach to food and has been at the forefront of menu R&D from the very beginning, showcasing tradition and innovation while also ensuring that it suits the Middle Eastern palate.
A decade of memories
It hasn’t always been plain sailing and every kitchen comes with its own challenges, and memories, as he explains: “When I was head chef at Asha’s Qatar, Saturdays were always very busy. One weekend one of my Nepalese waiters came to me and said ‘Chef, Kapil wants green chilli stuffed in whole-wheat bead’, but as we were slammed in the kitchen, I refused his request outright.
“A while later I went to check on the operation and see what was happening and, as I entered the restaurant, I saw Kapil Dev, captain of the 1983 Cricket World Cup winning team, sitting there eating with virtually the entire squad. Nobody from our team had recognised him and so I introduced myself and asked if there was anything we could do for them, and he said ‘ is there any chance we can have roti with green chilli as one of your chefs said no’. That was one of the funniest moments in my Asha’s career to date.”
Taking Asha’s to the next level
Outside of Indian food, he is a big fan of Thai, as he explains: “It’s earthy in the same way as Indian is and there’s such a burst of flavour with every mouthful. Their use of the herbs, chilies, seafood, meat and poultry is vast and every dish that features galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass and coconut milk is outstanding; plus they have amazing salads.”
Apart from Asha Bhosle, if he could have anyone cook for him, it would be his mum or wife as “the satisfaction in every morsel is simply heaven,” but his professional heart belongs to the brand.
Chef Navin considers Asha’s a classic, with a 15-year pedigree, but is not resting on his culinary laurels. “My vision is for Asha’s Restaurants to be a benchmark for Indian cuisine. I want other restaurateurs to look at their own operations and compare the service and food to what we have created; but at the same time I want us to remain a competitive culinary leader in every country in which we operate.”